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Character names in Dickens!

Alison Whiteoak

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This is a question which one of my colleagues was pondering on today.

Is there a technical term for the names which Dickens gives to his characters in order to denote the kind of character they are?

eg Scrooge and Uriah Heap

I can't remember having read anything to help her. Any ideas? :)

Edited by awhiteoak
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We usually use the word onomatopoeia in a restricted sense - words which represent the sound a thing makes.....however....

" the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (such as buzz or hiss). Onomatopoeia may also refer to the use of words whose sound suggests the sense. This occurs frequently in poetry, where a line of verse can express a characteristic of the thing being portrayed. " (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

So in fact the word for a name which expresses a characteristic is onomatopoeia.

Edited by derekmcmillan
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The word you are looking for is "aptronym" or "aptonym" (n.) = "A name that matches its owner's occupation or character, often in a humorous or ironic way." Cf. "aptronymic" or "aptonymic" (adj.).

Scrooge probably derives from the 18th century sense of the word "screw", which meant a miserly person.

Try doing a Web search on onomastics (the study of names) in Dickens' works.

How about these? Sweedlepipe, Honeythunder, Bumble, Pumblechook, Podsnap, Gradgrind, Pickwick.

I once met a guy called Richard Head. Very appropriate - he was one!

And then there is Susan Allcock, a BBC Radio 5 reporter who once covered the news about the possible costs of the drug Viagra to Britain's National Health service.

I once saw a barber's shop in Norway owned by "Finn Madshaven".

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I once met a guy called Richard Head. Very appropriate - he was one!

So did I. He was an out of work musician? He felt so badly about it he took his mother’s surname.

Come on chaps, you'll be telling me a knew a man called Warwick Hunt next. Leave it to Bart Simpson B)

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Guest Andrew Moore

The naming of characters is manifestly a game for Dickens - he makes occasional concessions to authenticity (Copperfield, say) , but most names are inventions. This may have been a kind of sensitivity about the real (as when dates in other writers appear as "the year 18--" or places as "the county of --"). The names, though, are memorable in an auditory sense - and Dickens knew (see his own Mr. Sloppy in Our Muutal Friend or Mr. Wopsle in Great Expectations) that his readers would read aloud for others, who could not read, but enjoyed listening.

When I started teaching at South Hunsley school, the chief caretaker was Dick Head. He never hid behind Richard. An excellent caretaker, too. Our students included a Paul Newman, a James Bond and a Jane Eyre.

The suggested character of the names comes, I think, almost wholly from the humour in the sounds. Mr. Sweedlepipe, like Mr. Nandy, is never going to be a hero. (Though Martin Chuzzlewit is.) Clennam and Doyce are more restrained names. Pip remarks of Orlick in Great Expectations that

"He pretended that his Christian name was Dolge - a clear impossibility - but he was a fellow of that obstinate disposition that I believe him to have been the prey of no delusion in this particular, but wilfully to have imposed that name upon the village as an affront to its understanding."

Perhaps there is a further joke here - since Dickens himself does with surnames what he suggests Orlick does with given names.

There are some familiar names - Bill Sykes has one of them. But they are heavily outnumbered by the Micawbers and M'Choakumchilds and Pumblechooks.

I think Derek's explanation takes us only part of the way. Western readers may (in broadly consensual ways) prefer some sounds to others. You can see this at work in The Lord of the Rings where the good characters have beautiful names like Galadriel and noble names like Aragorn and funny Hobbit names like Bilbo, and the bad ones have nasty orc names like Ugluk and Grishnakh. But this does not explain why we like some sounds and not others. And these vary among language cultures.

Ideas of euphony and musicality vary across cultures, as do notions of physical beauty - modern westerners may share some of our aesthetic values with classical Greece, rather than contemporary Botswana.

I agree that the sound of Scrooge's name suggests meanness - though that is partly now because we know his character. I'm not persuaded by Graham's explanation: using the principle of Occam's razor (no need for a complex explanation when a simple one will do), one can readily see Dickens (rather like Edward Lear) using his rare moments of semi-leisure to invent whimsical names for his wonderful characters.

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  • 4 months later...

strangely - one of my students asked me this week what's "Victorian nomenclature" ( lifting her head out of some book she was reading) and it was about this phenomenon you're asking about - but I guess there is a more specific term ...

but I wonder - did Scrooge mean scrooge b4 the book?

Just reading Scarlet Letter and we have Dimmesdale and Chillingworth who carry a cold dimension with them which definitely pre-dates the text

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oh I dunno whatit is about the layourtof this site - that I can miss the existing answers when I read a post ! LOL

btw - I know a guy called Richard Head too - and he isn't.

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